Social media is, without a doubt, a tremendous tool for disseminating ideas and information, but since anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account can share just about anything, political agenda-driven news articles about scientific discoveries abound.
While the topic has already been explored by psychologists and social scientists, we now have specific evidence that confirms the suspicions of researchers who were merely speculating as to the mental dispositions required for such rapid spread of scientific misinformation.
A study, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at the diffusion of content on Facebook, examining the spread of both conspiracy theories, or “alternative, controversial information, often lacking supporting evidence,” (such as the idea that vaccines can cause autism) and scientific news.
This had led the researchers to conclude that the spread of content, including biased and factually incorrect information, generally takes place within clusters of users known as “echo chambers” — polarized communities that tend to consume the same types of information.
The same was already demonstrated to take place on news outlets with differing political leanings. In order to maintain their readership base, these newspapers and online websites rely on supplying consistent messages over time, thereby reinforcing the beliefs their readers already hold.
“I would say that in the spreading of misinformation, online confirmation bias is the driver,” said the study’s senior author Walter Quattrociocchi of the IMT Institute for Advanced Studies in Lucca, Italy.
The question that remains is how this information can be useful to scientists or communicators hoping to better reach members of the public who disagree with their views, as, in the words of Professor Robert Brulle from Drexel University, “continued preaching to the choir is not going to work”.
Quattrociocchi now plans to conduct some more in-depth experiments on the diffusion of content by examining the effects of altering the way an idea is communicated, or “the way you are telling the story”, he added.